Breakout

Tech execs fume over Obama's reluctance to discuss 'Orwellian' NSA spying

Jeff Macke
Breakout

CNN and other sources are reporting that executives in attendance at Tuesday’s much-hyped meeting with President Obama were disappointed at the lack of meaningful discussion about on-line surveillance activity. The conversation reportedly centered around the President’s much-maligned ObamaCare website.

"We didn't fly across the country for a discussion on HealthCare.gov," groused a representative of one of the fifteen companies represented at the meeting. Earlier this month eight leading tech companies including Yahoo (YHOO) issued a joint letter calling for Global Government Surveillance Reform. The WhiteHouse clearly wanted healthcare front and center in the conversation and apparently got its way.

Related: Obama’s Tech Summit a cynical waste of time

One of the reasons the executives wanted survellience front and center rather than HealthCare.gov is that the tech problems related to launching a web site are below the pay grade of top tech CEOs. While nationalized healthcare is a monumentally complicated challenge, at a detailed level hooking up a website is not. Healthcare.gov is working towards handling 800,000 users per day.  According to Experian, Amazon.com handled 35 million visits on Cyber Monday in 2012.

Eric Jackson of Ironfire Capital says the tech leaders should have expected to be used for cheap PR. “I don’t understand the grumbles from the tech titans. Going into the summit don’t both sides know that they’re using the other?” asks Jackson in the attached video. “Obama wants to seem cool by rubbing shoulders with the techies, making him seem more innovative, and the techies just love the glory of sitting around the table with the President.”

Conceptually the remaining issues surrounding ObamaCare are whether or not the plan is economically sustainable and in the best interests of the country. That’s what all the arguing has been about for the last 2 years. In terms of the implementation of Healthcare.gov, the next step is painfully obvious to anyone with a passing familarity with business. Everyone involved in the roll-out of the website itself should be summarily dismissed and replaced with technologically proven suppliers under the direction of competent executives from the private sector.

What the all-star squad of tech execs wanted to discuss was developing a standardized set of rules and regulations regarding disclosure of information to the government in general, and in particular the NSA practice of gathering information about consumers telephone and internet use. Such activities are arguably a violation of fourth amendment which is intended to protect citizens from unreasonable search and seizure. In fact on Monday a federal judge ruled the NSA was doing just that, calling the mass collection of telephone records “almost Orwellian” in nature. Judge Leon added that James Madison, who is largely credited with crafting the framework of the constitution, would “be aghast” at the scope of the government’s data gathering.

Related: Tech Companies seek to change rules for watching you

The tech companies who joined together to form Reformed Government Surveillance are seeking to hold the government accountable for its data gathering in part by disclosing the details of its spying activity and ceasing the practice of strong-arming corporate America into handing over its records.

The bottom-line is that given the choice between a conversation regarding an institutionalized systematic violation of rights afforded to Americans by the constitution that’s been in place for more than 200 years, and giving a progress report on a failed website, the President chose the latter. That decision may not be surprising but that doesn’t make it right.

If President Obama wants to fix his website he should hire people qualified to get the job done. That part is easy. Determining where to draw the line between violating our collective rights and protecting us from cyber terrorism is much more complicated. Perhaps the next time there are at least ten brilliant executives (and a few large donors) sitting around a table in the White House, the conversation can be elevated to a level befitting the company.

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